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Tuesday, 27 August, 2002, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Legal help for green causes
Ugandan small farmers' demonstration against globalisation in Johannesburg
The judges say billions are being denied their rights

Efforts to improve environmental protection worldwide have been boosted by a group of more than 100 senior judges.

They have agreed to work to strengthen the application of environmental laws wherever they exist.

They believe effective laws do exist in most countries, but that they are hard to enforce in practice.

The participants included judges from the United States, Brazil and Russia. Significantly, they were unanimous in endorsing the principles, some of which clearly run counter to the thinking of the administration in Washington.

The legal initiative is the work of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep).

'Guardian of law'

The high court and supreme court judges met in a symposium held here last week, co-hosted by Justice Arthur Chaskalson, South Africa's chief justice. They agreed a statement, the Johannesburg Principles on the Role of Law and Sustainable Development.


This is an issue affecting billions of people who are effectively being denied their rights

Klaus Toepfer
Executive director of Unep
One key passage states: "We emphasise that the fragile state of the global environment requires the judiciary, as the guardian of the rule of law, to boldly and fearlessly implement and enforce applicable international and national laws which... will assist in alleviating poverty and sustaining an enduring civilisation."

The principles also "recognise that the people most affected by environmental degradation are the poor".

They say "the inequality between powerful and weak nations" places a greater responsibility on the rich to protect the environment.

Justice Chaskalson said: "The rule of law is the basis for a stable country and ultimately stable world. I am personally committed to realising and taking forward these historic principles."

Need for enforcement

"The field of law has, in many ways, been the poor relation in the world-wide effort to deliver a cleaner, healthier and ultimately fairer world," said Dr Klaus Toepfer, executive director of Unep.

US Supreme Court
US judges endorsed principles which run counter to Washington thinking
"We have over 500 international and regional agreements, treaties and deals covering everything from the protection of the ozone layer to the conservation of the oceans and seas.

"Almost all... countries have national environmental laws too. But unless these are enforced, then they are little more than symbols, tokens, paper tigers.

"This is an issue affecting billions of people who are effectively being denied their rights, and one of not only national but regional and global concern.

"What happens in one part of the world can affect another part of the globe - toxic pollutants from Asia, Europe and North America contaminating the Arctic, the greenhouse gases of the industrialised regions triggering droughts, or the melting of glaciers in the less industrialised ones."

Weaknesses

The project aims to develop the training of judges and lawyers, and to improve people's access to the courts, the legal system and to information.

Unep believes weaknesses in many countries' legal systems are helping to undermine efforts to prevent pollution and secure compliance with agreements on issues like hazardous wastes and the trade in endangered species.

It says these weaknesses are especially acute in many developing countries and nations of the former Soviet Union, where lack of resources and awareness, and problems with turning international treaties into national law, make it harder for cases to reach or succeed in the courts.


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27 Aug 02 | Africa
25 Aug 02 | Africa
25 Aug 02 | Science/Nature
22 Aug 02 | Africa
06 Aug 02 | Africa
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